‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is just the ticket at Little Theatre of Alexandria

It’s 1934 and a train departs Istanbul for a three-day journey across the continent. Among the passengers: a princess, a governess, a soldier, a businessman, a countess, a few Americans, and at the last minute, a world-renowned detective: Hercule Poirot. When one of the passengers is found dead, Poirot must unravel the intricate web of lies and secrets to uncover the truth behind the crime. Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and directed by Stefan Sittig, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express at the Little Theatre of Alexandria is your ticket to clever staging, tongue-twisting accents, and deadly intrigue.

Tackling the fastidious and meticulous Belgian detective with equal flair and exacting attention to detail was Michael Kharfen. Particular and impeccably groomed, Kharfen was a near-perfect embodiment of a man who missed nothing. Together with Poirot’s long-time friend, the jovial Monsieur Bouc played by Brian Lyons-Burke, and the helpful train conductor, Michel played by Paul Donahoe, these actors (and characters) balanced each other well, inviting the audience along with them as they sifted through stories, clues, and lies.

Michael Kharfen (Hercule Poirot), Brianna Goode (Countess Andrenyi), and Brian Lyons-Burke (Monsieur Bouc) in Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

Often directly opposite the investigation was the wealthy and eccentric Mrs. Helen Hubbard, played by Eleanore Tapscott. Giving a vaudevillian performance that stirred the pot, Tapscott could not be missed as she popped around corners and sang at the top of her lungs. Another unmissable pair was the stern Princess Dragomiroff, played by Patricia Nicklin, and the flappable Greta Ohlsson, played by Julia Rudgers. Frequently bickering and seldom quiet, these two were the odd couple that kept the audience off kilter.

With a mobster’s drawl plucked out of the talkies, Paul Caffrey’s portrayal of Samuel Ratchett was a bolt of lightning from the start. Rough and twitchy, Caffrey pulsed with the anxiety and lack of control you’d absolutely expect to develop from a mysterious and ​​morally dubious past.

Hoping to fly a little more under the radar were the soft and skittish Mary Debenham, played by Danielle Comer, and the fiery-tempered Colonel Arbuthnot (with a brogue that transported you to the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond), played by John Paul Odle. Often found together, but protestingly not together, these two were all quick glances and sneaky hands. Another quiet presence was the perpetually nervous Hector MacQueen, played by Avery Lance. Tightly wound and jumpy, Lance’s MacQueen was driven by an anxiety that stretched out to the end of his tightly clutched arms.

Poised and elegant, the Hungarian aristocrat Countess Andrenyi played by Brianna Goode was another mysterious presence who did not flinch in the face of blood or danger. Goode’s guarded demeanor was constant and she walked the delightful knife’s edge between suspicious and Good(e) Samaritan. The dance of admiration and wariness between her and Poirot also added more than a few moments of levity to break the tension of the evening.

TOP LEFT: Eleanore Tapscott (Helen Hubbard) and Paul Donahoe (Head Waiter/Michel); TOP RIGHT: Patricia Nicklin (Princess Dragomiroff) and Julia Rudgers (Greta Ohlsson); ABOVE: (seated) Brianna Goode (Countess Andrenyi), Eleanore Tapscott (Helen Hubbard), Patricia Nicklin (Princess Dragomiroff), Julia Rudgers (Greta Ohlsson); (standing) Brian Lyons-Burke (Monsieur Bouc), Paul Caffrey (Samuel Ratchett), John Paul Odle (Colonel Arbuthnot), Michael Kharfen (Hercule Poirot), Danielle Comer (Mary Debenham), Avery Lance (Hector MacQueen) and Paul Donahoe (Head Waiter/Michel), ) in Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Photos by Matt Liptak.

Surrounding the suspicious passengers was a harmonious creative team. With sound design by Janice Rivera, costume design by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley, prop design by Julia Lisowski, special effects by Art Snow, and makeup and hair design by Larissa Norris, each creative discipline added to the suspense. The star for me though was the set design by Matt Liptak. A turntable puzzle box befitting the intricate series of events unfolding in its halls, the set was a character in and of itself. (I only wish the production had used the cleverly placed center hallway more to weave the tangled, dizzying web further.) Equally impressive was the dialog coaching by Alden Michels. Working with the actors through French, Swedish, Russian, Scottish, English, and of course Belgian accents ran the gamut of linguistic peculiarities. Another callout has to be the lighting design by Ken and Patti Crowley. Among the clever choices throughout, for me it was the starting and ending train lighting that was arresting — a light so bright you wanted to shield your eyes from the oncoming train, oncoming death, or oncoming light to heaven.

A classic and complicated whodunit by one of the genre’s best, this production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express pulls at conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, as examined within the gray shades of human nature. What is for certain at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, though, is that an evening’s ride on the Orient Express is worth the risk of danger. If you can get a ticket.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express plays through April 14, 2024, at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. To purchase tickets ($21–$24), go online or contact the Box Office via phone (703-683-0496) or email ([email protected]).

The program for Murder on the Orient Express is online here.

COVID Safety: Face masks are optional but encouraged.

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